"Meaningful Work" — "Right Livelihood" — "Good Work"

What's the difference?

Meaningful Work

As we said elsewhere, meaning is personal.

Meaningfulness is not inherently good or bad.

One person’s “great job” is another person’s nightmarish wage slavery.

Each person’s meaningful work can be helpful or harmful to self or others. 

By contrast, when “right livelihood” was adopted into the West as a kind of meaningful work, it offered a level of clarity about exactly what kind of meaning is meant when the term is used.

Finding Meaningful Work (craft as right livelihood business).
Grapes of an abundant harvest.

Right Livelihood

Right livelihood is a specific subset of meaningful work where the meaning comes from a focus on:

  • self-discovery
  • minimizing harm
  • making the world a better place for everyone.

According to author and commerce guru Michael Phillips, among the key social elements of right livelihood are:

  1. Working at a human pace, not the pace of machines.
  2. Being able to see the “downstream” impacts of the work you do.
  3. Being safe from punishment or firing if you start talking about negative downstream impacts in an effort to stimulate responsible action.

Good Work

Good Work is even more focused—on specific tasks such as:

  • Committing to economic stability for self and others
  • Using mindfulness to find meaningful, fulfilling work
  • Practicing simple living
    • To reduce one’s economic needs
    • To minimize one’s environmental impact
  • Advocating for participatory decision making
  • Aspiring to mastery of personal responsibility and accountability

Caring for the “seventh generation” by caring for the next one (father teaching children about gardening).

Thus, Good Work contributes both to personal meaningfulness and to the welfare of others. It is the practical application of “doing well by doing good.”

More About Good Work

Caring for the seventh generation by caring for the next one (father teaching son craft skills).

With Good Work you:

  • Break free from depending on others for a sense of self-esteem
  • Experience more supportive friendships

In Good Work what you do for work is determined:

  • First, by your innate interests and capacities
  • Second, by the need to pay your way

Taking responsibility for paying your way is important, but you also want work that lets you . . .

Do What You Love and Still Pay the Bills!

Good Work is built from a sense that all of life is interrelated and you belong—you have a place in it.

  • Good Work is work that gives you a feeling of genuine contribution and satisfaction.
  • Good Work allows you to be receptive to the needs of others.
  • Good Work aspires to do no harm and to promote happiness for all.
  • Good Work encourages you to both nurture yourself and others.
  • Good Work is work that is right for you.

Interbeing nurtures friends and builds community (mutual support from friends).

Find your place on the planet.
Dig in, and take responsibility from there.

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder,

poet, deep ecologist, man of letters

What Makes Work "Right"?

What do we mean when we say that Good Work is work that is “right” for you?

When you aspire to Good Work, there are two specific concerns that must be addressed early on:

  • Time
  • Money

How you manage time and money can have a big impact on how successful you are at finding and maintaining Good Work.

Whether you find Good Work or not, you still need to pay your way.

You also need the time for mindfulness practice and the other practices and activities that lead to Good Work.

Time and Money (an hourglass measures the sands of time. A piggy bank represents money management.
Self Power

To find your “good work”, the right work for you, start by asking these two questions about any work opportunity:

  • “How much control will it give me over my time?”
  • “How much money will it generate?”

What you want, ideally, is work that generates more than enough money to meet your needs and leaves you with more than enough time to pursue your personal vision and purpose.

Notice that the two questions above are in order of 1) time and 2) money.

It’s easy to mix them up and make money the main pursuit with the mistaken notion that if you can only make enough money, you can buy the time you need.

So, work that is “right” for you, “good work,” starts by creating the time and money you need to establish an economically stable living situation.

Don’t wait. Start now. Make finding time your most important objective. Make money simply a means to support this whole project.

Keep your eyes peeled along the way to pick up simple living strategies that improve your life without requiring money to do so.

Do What You Love and Still Pay the Bills

I sometimes joke with clients that, judging from how people behave at work, the word career is actually the word “careen” with a piece of the “n” snapped off to make it look like the letter “r.”

Even if you think my sense of humor is a bit odd, there’s no denying that many jobs make us feel like we’re bouncing off the walls of our cubicles or careening through life from one bad job to another. It doesn’t have to be this way. You CAN find Good Work . . .

. . . Work that pays the bills, takes care of your family, and lets you put some away for the future.

. . . Work that is personally meaningful and makes you feel like your making a contribution.

. . . Work where your opinion is valued or that is otherwise satisfying day-to-day.

. . . Work that makes you feel like you’re serving something bigger than just yourself.

In short, Good Work.

CW Leading a Training Session
CW Leading a Training Session

How Can You Recognize "Good Work"?

Top 12 Qualities of Good Work

Level 1

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Challenge greater than skill level

Level 2

  • Work at your own pace
  • Awareness of “downstream” impacts
  • No fear of punishment or reprisals

Level 3

  • Feels good
  • Takes care of family and friends
  • Benefits community and society

Level 4

  • Feel good about your work
  • Do what you love
  • Pay the bills

When a job provides clear goals, immediate feedback, and a level of challenge slightly greater than your current skill level, then you have a first chance at experiencing work as “good.”

When you have the freedom to work at your own pace (not the pace of machines), when you are aware of the “downstream” impacts of your work, and when you are free to point out negative impacts without fear of punishment or reprisal, then you have the next level of work as “good.”

When your work feels good, when it allows you to take care of family and friends, when it benefits your community and society, then you have the nearly complete formula for work that is “good.”

When you feel good about your work, when you know that you can “do what you love and still pay the bills,” at last, you have a fuller picture of “good work.”

Brush painting of a circle, triangle, and square, illustrating Mindfulness and Meaning; the square symbolizes the body, the triancgle symbolizes emotions, the circle symbolizes the mind.

Want to Know More About Finding Good Work?

Check out the two critical components of the path:

  • The Inner Work (self-power): Break Through to Get What You Want
  • The Outer Work (other-power): Building Support for Right Livelihood.

Learn more about “self-power” and “other-power.”.